Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Women, football and a century of sexism

Okay, so you’ve probably all heard of the Dick Kerr Ladies by now.  As the media got terribly excited about the Women’s World Cup over the summer – like a toy they didn’t know they had – the team seemed to be the default starting position for any article on women’s football.

That being the case, I won’t bore you with the details of how the Ladies played to packed crowds and gave Jenny Foreigner, as well as several men’s teams, a good arse-shoeing before the FA pulled the rug from under their feet in 1921 by banning ladies teams from Football League grounds.

From that point until the Seventies the women’s game in England existed in more-or-less underground fashion with matches being staged for charity purposes or at local events. The Dick Kerr Ladies regained national prominence briefly in the Thirties and finally disbanded in 1965.

The original Girl Power movement
It was a year later, however, with the 1966 World Cup Finals being staged in England coupled with the recently begun ‘second wave’ feminist movement that the slow journey towards proper recognition for women’s football in the country began.

Women like Sue Lopez were captivated and became the driving force behind a more organised female game. Lopez helped launch both a successful team in her home town of Southampton and the WFA, in the process becoming the dominant female player of her generation. She was the first female English player to play abroad spending a season with Roma in the early Seventies and scoring 13 goals in 11 games. She sacrificed this semi-professional career to ensure she remained eligible to play for the then-amateur England team.

1971 saw Mexico stage the second unofficial women’s World Cup in as many years and while it was depressingly sexist – the goals were pink, the players encouraged to wear hot pants and blouses – it was a huge success. If there’s one thing guaranteed to make a football governing body take notice it’s money and with a crowd of 108,000 watching the opening game, UEFA leapt into action and requested all national associations take responsibility for the women’s game in their country. Finally, the FA lifted the ban on women’s football at League grounds and started working more closely with their female counterparts.

However, it took until this year to see the launch of an FA-sanctioned women’s league – the semi-professional FA WSL – England finally falling into line with other European nations and dragging itself into the 20th Century (yes, you read that right). Yet, it’s little wonder given the prejudice the women’s game has faced.

In 1978 the Appeal Court overturned a County Court ruling allowing an 11-year-old girl to play football with boys of the same age and ten years later, Ted Croker, then secretary of the FA, said: “We don’t like males and females playing together. I like feminine girls. It’s just not natural.”  Only in 1991 did the FA rescind its rule forbidding girls up to the age of 11 playing football with boys and two years later the FA finally took responsibility for the administration of the women’s football.
Of course, anyone reading the papers during that period would have been hard-pushed to find any coverage of the women’s game.  For much of the latter part of the 20th Century women’s role in football, at least as far as the tabloids were concerned, was confined to the passive adjunct – the ‘birds’ on Bestie’s arm, the totty in the latest tiresome footballer-shags-about-behind-wife/girlfriend’s-back scandal, the Page 3 girl sporting St George’s knickers and not much else during a major tournament or the loyal but long-suffering wife of the obsessed fan.

In 1979 the first editor of the Daily Star, Derek Jameson said the paper would be a mixture of “Tits, bums, QPR and roll your own fags”.  Swap your own team’s name for QPR and it’s everything the self-respecting fan could want, no?  Sure there was a place for women in the brave new world of the Ooh, Ahh, Daily Star, but the key entry requirement was that they got their kit off.

Even earlier this year, when Richard Keys and Andy Gray were undone for their comments about assistant referee Sian Massey, the Sun showed its feminist credentials with the splash headline “GET ‘EM OFF”.  Of course they wanted Keys and Grey banned from our screens, the fact the headline was accompanied by a picture of Massey enjoying herself at a party in a skimpy vest top was entirely coincidental.

News International's Spare Rib relaunch edition
Until the recent gentrification of the game in the early to mid-Nineties any woman walking past the massed ranked of male supporters on the terraces would have been serenaded with a rendition of the beautiful and moving ‘Get yer tits out for the lads’.

In the sexually confused and immature world of English football, overtly masculine vernacular is still par for the course among some fans.  The referee is, more-often-than-not a “wanker” [insert appropriate hand-gesture here], opposition supporters are “dickheads” and fans often assert their superiority over the opposition by using graphic sexual metaphors like “we fucked them up”.  Of course you did, lads.

In the same vain, skilful players who fail to measure up to the required levels of masculinity demanded in the game have traditionally been damagingly feminised.  ‘Fanny merchant’ was the disparaging term for a skilful player in the Seventies and Eighties and it’s little surprise that Glen Hoddle was re-christened Glenda in the tabloids.  Now the phrase du jour is to “man up”. What’s the opposite; to “woman down”?

Conversely, good female players have traditionally been damagingly masculinised.  The excellent former-Arsenal and England player Marianne Spacey recognised in 1989 that in the eyes of others her and her team mates were seen as “just a bunch of dykes running around a football pitch”.

OK, things have moved on a little since then, but while 73,000 spectators packed Berlin’s Olympiastadion to see Germany play Canada in the opening match of this year’s Women’s World Cup there was no easily-accessible coverage of the game on English TV.  Likewise, England’s games against Mexico and New Zealand were relegated to BBC’s red button and British Eurosport.

The stridently masculine nature of the sport in this country – which has been protected for decades – means that the English football is not just known for a lack of technique and tactical awareness but also it’s overtly physical and relatively violent nature.

The leg-breaking tackle is an issue that rears its ugly head every season in the Premier League.  While the English pundits content themselves that the aggressor just “isn’t that sort of lad” foreign players and journalists shake their heads in bemusement.  German writer Raphael Honigstein noted in his book Englisher Fussball that even during a Sunday knockabout in England you get “tackled to bits” and that English players “steam into each bone crushing challenge with a happy sense of abandon”.

At 5ft 9½ James Milner is freakishly small for an English midfielder, yet he’s still taller than Barcelona's Lionel Messi, Andrés Inesta and Xavi Hernández (all 5ft 7) who are currently running rings around all before them.  Following Manchester United’s Champions League final defeat at the hands of Barca, Gary Neville (himself a midget at 5ft 11) in his new role as a Sky Sports talking head was moved to point out the relatively small size of the Spanish team’s midfielders compared to the traditional big English player.

So was Terry Butcher (6ft 4) – a man who surely epitomises an English football fan’s idea of masculinity with his bloody-bandaged, wild-eyed performance against Sweden in 1989 – when while writing in the Daily Mirror he opined England’s ‘fixation’ with “power, build, muscle and force” and the fact that football coaches “are instructed to pick the big players and forget the small, jinky boys even though they are more comfortable with the ball at their feet”.

Perhaps this fixation with the euphemistic “big lad” and “hard tackle” be, in part at least, because female involvement in the English game has been kept to the bare minimum.  Italy’s women’s Serie A was founded nearly 40 years ago; Spain’s Superliga Femenina was established 23 years ago; Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga was established in 1990, just 27 years after the men’s game in the country went professional; Norway’s Toppserien was founded in 1984 and Sweden’s Damallsvenskan four years later.

Could it be that these other countries are more comfortable with and accommodating of the aspects of the game considered ‘feminine’ in England.  Even Scandanavian football, which is known for its tactical similarities to English football (not least because of the influence of Englishmen Roy Hodgson and Bob Houghton), is not as aggressive.  Scandanavian mens clubs regularly dominate FIFA’s Fairplay league and the area is one of the heartlands of the women’s game.
Piss off, old man.
Of course, you can always rely on wrinkly-faced FIFA Muppet Sepp Blatter to join the party.  As recently as 2004 he was calling on female players to wear “more feminine clothes” like “for example, tighter shorts”.  Fast forward to this year and the Iranian women’s team was banned from next year’s London Olympics because FIFA will not sanction their kit which adheres to Islamic dress code (basically a full tracksuit and head scarf).

There's a whole other issue about whether women should have to wear such clothes, but this tiny concession from the sport’s governing body might have helped, to some extent at least, advance women’s rights in Iran. But hey, what’s the point of a female footballer if she’s not showing a bit of leg, eh Sepp?

Having said that, even players in the world’s most established women’s football leagues struggle to match their male counterparts socially and economically.  The average professional will get paid a fraction of the salary of her male footballers and there has yet to be a break-out women’s footballer with access to millionaire-making advertising and sponsorship contracts similar to women in some other sports like Florence Griffith-Joyner in athletics or female tennis players.

And get this; in 1999 Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty for the USA in the World Cup final.  She celebrated by taking her shirt off and waving it above her head, before falling to her knees and being mobbed by her team mates. The photo of Chastain in (Shock! Horror!) her sports bra made the front of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated magazines.

It’s arguably still the most iconic image in women’s football history.  That it’s, basically, a picture of some bird getting her kit off; well that tells you all you need to know…

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